Think you know what the Immaculate Conception is all about? Think again. Most people and even most Catholics tend to get this one wrong. Watch Fr. Jack Collins, CSP, hit the streets to talk to parents and their children about what is and what is not the Immaculate Conception.
Ever wonder what the big deal is with Catholics and the Virgin Mary? Do they worship her or just pray to her? What’s the Annunciation? What’s the Immaculate Conception? What’s the Assumption? All these questions and more answered in this short two (okay, three) minute video.
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Catholic teaching states that Mary was conceived without original sin and that she also remained sinless her entire life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was preserved from all stain of original sin and by a special grace of God committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.” (CCC 411) The Church believes that because she was the mother of a sinless son, Mary was given the special privilege of being forever free from sin herself: “To become the mother of the Savior, Mary was ‘enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.’” (CCC 490)
What do other Christians believe about Mary (Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc.)?
Christians believe that Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of Christ. In general, however, Mary plays a much less significant role in Protestant faiths than in Catholicism. In post-Reformation Europe, Protestants viewed Catholic devotion to Mary as excessive and non-Biblical. For many, that feeling has persisted over the centuries.
Though it’s hard to generalize, certain Catholic beliefs about Mary are rejected by most Protestants. These teachings include the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary was conceived without original sin), the Assumption, Mary’s perpetual virginity, and the role of Mary as intercessor.
In recent years, however, many religious writers have noted increased Protestant interest in Mary. This is attributed to several factors, including renewed efforts at ecumenism, the movement of many Hispanic Catholics to Protestant churches, and the impact of films such as The Passion of the Christ and The Nativity Story. Certainly, any discussion of Mary should build upon the beliefs that are common to all Christians. As the National Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in their pastoral letter Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith:
“We are convinced that all Christians share a basic reverence for the Mother of Jesus, a veneration deeper than doctrinal differences and theological disputes … Together we accept the Gospel respect for the Mother of Jesus, Handmaid of the Lord, woman of faith, model of prayer, servant of the Spirit.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the state known as original sin began with Adam and Eve, and has defined human nature ever since. “By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings.” (CCC 416) The Church isn’t saying that original sin is genetic, rather that it’s an inevitable part of being human.
Jesus, of course, was an exception, and the Catholic Church teaches that Mary was as well. Knowing that she would consent to be the mother of Christ, God gave her the honor of being exempt from original sin. “The Most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” (Ineffabilis Deus) This should not be seen as a denial of Mary’s humanity; it simply shows that God intervened to create a sinless mother for his sinless son. Yes, it goes against our expectations around original sin, but it’s worth remembering that it’s within God’s power to make that happen, if he so chooses. As Mary herself learned, “nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)
Catholics differ from some Christian Churches which accept the Scripture as the only source of God’s revelation. Catholics have a strong belief in the truth of Scripture, but we also believe in tradition as a way in which God continues to reveal truth to us. Tradition can include beliefs, customs, prayers, and worship, the teaching of popes, bishops, theologians and Church councils. It’s our process of continually reflecting on the way in which the Word of God encounters our own experience as a community of faith.
Catholic understanding is that tradition includes the Scripture, and began before the gospels and letters were written. We do believe that Scripture is a unique revelation from God and that the truths of tradition must always be tested and evaluated against the truths revealed in Scripture. They should not contradict Scripture. They should find their roots in Scripture.
The belief that Mary lived without sin from the moment of her conception springs from Church tradition. It evolved over a period of time, and was not formally defined as a teaching of the Church until 1854. It is not found explicitly in Scripture, but seems for Catholics to flow naturally from the testimony of Scripture that Mary was “full of grace” (Luke 1:28) and “blessed” (Luke 1:42).
In Catholic understanding the belief in Mary’s “immaculate conception” does not say so much about Mary as it is about Christ’s saving power. We believe that God created the human person to be in God’s own image. Grace is more original than sin. Our natural state was to be “full of grace.” Sin is our universal experience but it’s not what God intended for us in the past nor wants for us in the future. We are saved from sin through Christ. Mary’s being conceived without sin takes place in the context of the entire saving act of Christ. In being “full of grace” she is a model of what we human beings were intended to be and who we are redeemed to be through God’s saving power. She is the first sign of God’s victory over sin in Christ.